Class Action: Last-Minute Tuition Tips

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It’s not even Labor Day yet, but school is starting across the country, and college bursar offices are busy recording tuition payments. If you’re still looking to close the gap on college costs, make these last-ditch (but smart) college fund moves.

Try to relax. Take your first step by taking a deep breath. Most colleges don’t demand a full year’s tuition upfront – and chances are you can stave off a big payment you can’t afford by asking your child’s college about tuition installment plans.

Ask about installment plans.
Installment plans not only buy you some peace of mind, even more importantly they can buy you some time. Use that time to figure out how to pay off the entire tuition bill. For example, if you have a certificate of deposit maturing during the middle of the school year, you can use that money to pay down your family’s college bill. One tip on a maturing investment: Wait until the last minute to cut a check. You want to garner the most return on your investment as possible before you cut the cord and use the money for tuition payments. One more point: Expect to pay a nominal fee of $100 or less to register for a tuition installment plan.

Consider an IRA. Specifically, consider a Roth IRA. With a Roth, you can open an IRA and withdraw proceeds from it without fear of any tax retribution from Uncle Sam. Check with a good accountant or tax adviser to see what rules specifically apply, but by and large, Roth’s are a great college tuition tool for late-saving Americans.

Get a job. No, not you Mom and Dad. Ideally, your son or daughter can help their own cause by finding a job on or near campus for a few hours a week. College cities and towns are in particular need of employees after the school year starts – that’s when things get hopping again in places like Austin, Texas or Amherst, Mass. Check out sites like College Helpers or Career Builder. Better yet, hit the pavement once you get to school and ask local business for work. Don’t forget to check your school’s jobs office, too.

Appeal your FAFSA Aid. The federal government’s ubiquitous financial aid form, FAFSA, should have been filled out by June 30 for the new school year, according to the FAFSA Web site. There are some exceptions, especially for hardship cases, but the form should already be in the hands of college administrators. If it is, and you want to dig for more money, you can always appeal your FAFSA aid package. Your first stop is your school’s financial aid office, which should have instructions on filing an appeal. One specific strategy is to file for a “professional judgment” review of your aid package. They’re usually reserved for tough cases, like a layoff or illness of the family’s primary breadwinner. Just be prepared to back up any claims, like a notice of job loss, or a file full of medical bills, when you send in your request for more aid.

Families can also max out their Stafford student loans or apply for a federally-guaranteed PLUS loan. Students can also raise some quick cash by selling a car or asking their school about defraying living expenses by serving as a resident assistant (RA).

It’s not too late to grab some last-minute tuition dough. But if you wait too long, then at least get your ducks in a row for 2010.

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